More Politicians Use Web as Campaign Tool
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 1998; Page A01
LOS ANGELES Last Thursday afternoon, Rob Patton, director of technical operations for the Barbara Boxer Senate campaign, sat down at his keyboard and sent an e-mail message to 3,000 supporters across the country, alerting them that Republican challenger Matt Fong would be appearing that evening online at a virtual town hall meeting hosted by NBC's affiliate here.
"Please stop in and let him know your opinions," he wrote to Boxer's wired troops. And this they did.
Whatever else this "historic chat" accomplished, it was a flicker of the possible future of the virtual politics promised by the revolutionary power of the Internet.
That evening, as Fong sat before a computer in a television studio, he was asked by online netizens about his stands on HMO reform, the Clinton impeachment inquiry, education and abortion. Some 250 people entered the cyber town hall, and while it is impossible to know the political affiliations of those who logged on, Patton is certain that some of Boxer's supporters went online to quiz her opponent.
This political season is seeing more use of the Internet by campaigns than ever before. Almost every major candidate, and many local ones too, are maintaining Web sites, where they offer not only the standard fare of resumes and positions, but are encouraging their supporters to donate money online, to pass along e-mail endorsements to friends and newspapers and to watch and participate in the campaigns - all from the comfort of their computers.
The figures alone point to the potential power of the tool in the right hands.
Here in California, the most connected, wired state in the union, a recent Field Poll revealed that 46 percent of likely voters have e-mail addresses. And many of them are using the Net to keep an eye on politicians or subjects they care about, be it the environment, abortion rights, or taxes - all special issues that are represented on the Internet with their own Web sites. The California Secretary of State's election Web site had a mind-bending 1.8 million hits in one 24-hour period on the night of the June primary.
A July survey by the publication Campaigns and Elections of 270 local, state and federal candidates found that 63 percent had a Web site and another 21 percent expected to be on the Internet by Election Day.
"Now everybody realizes they need to be on, that it's important to have your Web page and your e-mail lists. That is good," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns in Washington, which provides Web services for coalitions and trade groups. "But they don't know yet how to use it."
Few candidates surveyed said they will spend more than $2,000 to design and maintain their presence on the Net. Most will allocate only about $500. And even among those on the Net, many candidates put up the money for a Web site because they worry that if they fail to do so, they will seem like technological dinosaurs.
Candidates for office began creating Web pages in earnest during the 1994 electoral cycle, and it was, perhaps surprisingly, Republican presidential contender Robert J. Dole who is credited by Internet anthropologists with making history when he announced his campaign's Web site during a debate with Clinton that year. Unfortunately, his network server could only handle about 10,000 users at a time, and his page crashed as it was flooded with a million attempted hits.
With the advent of high-speed modems and super-fast servers, getting onto the Internet is not the problem. It is what a surfer finds when he or she gets there.
Despite the growing sophistication of hyperlinks and snappy graphics, most of the politico-pages seem mired in what its detractors describe, with some disdain, as "brochureware." Typically, there is a photograph of the candidate, a biography, a list of positions, some news clippings and the usual kind of exaggeration and misrepresentation of their opponents' positions often seen in TV ads.
"It's like, here's a place to look at me and here's my ad," said Alexander Clemens, who runs a Web site on San Francisco politics.
What the Web sites could use, say advocates of the Internet, are more "interactivity" and "functionality," meaning giving those who find the page some ability to communicate with the campaign - and maybe even do something more than simply scroll through position papers.
Some campaigns are trying. GOP Ohio gubernatorial candidate Robert Taft encourages virtual volunteers at his site to type in their Zip codes to get a list of talk radio shows airing in their markets so they can call in and push Taft. Other Web sites list the names and postal and e-mail addresses for local newspapers so supporters can write letters to the editors. Some include helpful "sample" letters.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Barnes in Georgia has a site complete with a whimsical campaign headquarters Web camera. An outfit calling itself Campaign Web Review, which posts a biweekly online newsletter on political use of the Internet, gave Barnes a "10," a two-thumbs-up, noting, "Clearly, this is a candidate who gets it."
Another new technique is fund-raising on the Internet. In Indiana's Senate race, Democrat and former governor Evan Bayh's Web site offers the typical brochureware, but visitors can do more: They can give Bayh their credit card numbers and charge a donation.
So far, Bayh's webmasters report that the candidate has received only about $250. But it's a start. A June survey conducted by Elaine Kamarck of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University found that 16 percent of Senate candidates and 9 percent of gubernatorial candidates raise money on the Web by soliciting credit card numbers.
In California, Boxer's Web site is also getting high marks for effort. By clicking on the "Get Involved" symbol, supporters can find out how to contribute money, host a house party, send a letter to an editor or pass along an e-mail "information kit" to a friend.
But even Boxer's site shows the current limitations. In all, the senator has gathered only 250 people to become online "Barbara Backers," a more active cell of netizen supporters. And though she has raised $10,000 on the Internet, that barely covers the cost of running the site.
One of the problems with campaigning on the Internet is figuring out how to get the curious and the supportive to the Web pages.
Many of the candidates with Web sites still do not list their Internet addresses on campaign materials such as yard signs or TV spots. Boxer has taken the unique step of advertising her site on the Internet, purchasing so-called "banner" ads on other Web pages. Boxer is now advertising her page on a dozen Web sites for California newspapers and magazines, and in her hunt for female voters, she also has banners on Web sites such as chickclick.com, "geared to the webwomen of the '90s."
But even with these banner ads up and running, Boxer is only getting a hundred or so "click-throughs" a day, meaning that for all the surfers who might see her banner ads on the Internet, only 1 or 2 percent are "clicking" on the ad to find out more. After more than five years on the Internet, as senator and candidate, Boxer has an e-mail address book totaling only about 3,000 people.
It is, of course, possible for a candidate to send unsolicited e-mail to thousands or millions of people. These lists of e-mail addresses are growing and can be purchased, just as telemarketers buy phone numbers and the demographic data that go with them. But such unwanted mail, called "spam," is as likely to backfire as it is to win new friends.
The reason is that Internet users consistently tell pollsters that they loathe spam, that for some reason it is even more annoying and intrusive than those supper-time telemarketing calls, despite the growing use of "spamware" by commercial outfits. One of the problems is that those who spam to sell are seen as the bottom feeders of the Internet - not exactly the kind of company a politician needs.
Georgia Democratic state Sen. Steve Langford, who was running for governor, felt the sting of a spam campaign gone wrong. He sent out bulk unsolicited e-mail to 500 voters in July, but then had to issue an apology the next day to pacify angry recipients who said they did not want political junk mail stuffed in their computers.
The specter of spamming pols disturbs many of the Internet advocates who see in the technology a way to engage, empower and enlighten citizens - not sell them politicians like so many bars of soap.
This "dark side" is something that Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, worries about - how to keep the grass-rooters from being overwhelmed by the media manipulators. Her nonpartisan group serves the active voter by providing voluminous but easy-to-access information about candidates and propositions in California on the Net, including a handy "Follow the Money" section that shows who is giving what.
"What scares me about the Internet and politics is that for every one trying to provide information and community, there might be twice as many who are political strategists trying to figure out how can they make the Internet fit into strategies they've already developed." The answer to that bigger question is more than a few clicks of the mouse away.
"I thought that by 1998, everybody would get it. It's a no-brainer, a great way to get your message out," said Alexander. "But change happens very quickly in technology. And very slowly in politics."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company